Game change? Tesla unveils solar roof tiles

Anything look ‘solar’? No? That’s the point. Tesla Solar is betting that affordable, attractive tiles can change everything.

Roofing contractors are still reserving judgment, of course, but how can they not appreciate the extra attention their under-appreciated profession is getting this week? After all, it’s not every day that international man of mystery, Tony Stark — er, Elon Musk — singles you out in a surprise global press conference to say that he has chosen your industry as the next one on his list to improve.

Yes, the famed Tesla founder and interplanetary travel agent who didn’t even have time to work on his own elaborate idea for the Hyperloop, last week stunned the world by unveiling new solar roof tiles that may very well transform a segment of the $20-billion U.S. homebuilding market.

“The sun provides more than enough energy in just one hour to supply our planet’s energy needs for an entire year,” Musk told the assembled press corps at sunset last Friday. “Your home can capture this free, abundant energy source through rooftop solar tiles, turning sunlight into electricity for immediate use or storage in a Powerwall battery.”


“The goal is to have solar roofs that look better than normal roofs, generate electricity, last longer, and actually have an installed cost that is less than the combined cost of a normal roof plus the cost of electricity ”

— Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla
Above, the new quartet of tiles (from left): Tuscan, Slate, Textured, and Smooth Glass.x 

The Oct. 28 event at the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles CA came just weeks after Tesla and SolarCity announced that they were moving forward with all necessary steps for combining the companies. Each firm has now set November 17 as the date of its respective shareholder meetings for voting on the acquisition. Final proxy materials were mailed to all shareholders last month.

If shareholders approve the transaction, a combined Tesla and SolarCity will be able “to provide the first ever opportunity to generate, store, and consume energy entirely sustainably, through a suite of integrated products that add aesthetics and function while reducing cost,” claims Tesla on its company website. “By leveraging SolarCity’s installation network and Tesla’s global retail footprint, we can do this in a way that is seamless for our customers and that we expect will create significant value for our shareholders.”

In addition to the new roof tile, Tesla and SolarCity last week also unveiled Powerwall 2.0, “a battery for homes and small businesses that stores the sun’s energy and delivers clean, reliable electricity when the sun isn’t shining,” the company says. In early November, Tesla also plans to release additional financial information about the merged entity.

early reviews mixed

Granted, it is ridiculously early for substantive feedback, but the reviews of the new solar roof tiles so far have ranged from raves to raised eyebrows from less impressed experts like the MIT Technology Review. Under the headline, Tesla Solar Roof Story: So far, So Superficial, MIT’s Jamie Condliffe wrote:

Tesla chose to unveil its new solar roof technology on the fictional road of Wisteria Lane from the TV show Desperate Housewives. The choice may have proven apt: like the set that was used as a model for the new products, the technology for now remains rather superficial.

For its part, Bloomberg Technology was a bit more impressed with the “stunning” news…

Posting yesterday on the Bloomberg Technology blog, reporter Tom Randall added:

Powerwall 2 looks ready for primetime. The new solar shingles? Let’s wait until more details emerge. Tesla says we should expect a slow initial rollout beginning in about nine months. Within two years of production, the shingles could account for 5% of the five million roofs installed in the U.S. every year, said Peter Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and chief technology officer. SolarCity, under the Tesla brand, would also manufacture and sell surface-mounted solar panels for homeowners who have no plans for replacing their existing roofs.  

Industry blog TechCrunch sees an even broader, more positive effect from the new Tesla power products. Writes TC’s Darrell Etherington and Greg Kumparak:

It’s tempting to look at Tesla’s unveiling last week and think that it’s more of an incremental development in the home solar industry. But it’s more likely a step toward a future where individuals have more direct control over power generation, leading to a big difference in how we think about renewable energy.

For its part, BuiltWorlds this week reached out to individual roofers and related contractor groups for comment, but all declined to go on the record. Still, one could sense keen interest in the recent news and even hope that it may one day result in many, many new and retrofit roofing projects.

Then again, as one industry observer joked with us, if stylish solar roof tiles do gain real market share, roofers may fear that electrical contractors will actually start installing them. Or failing that, they may have to hire their own electricians for the work, and then adjust their insurance coverage, and then…

Ah, disruption… It can be a scary thing when it points to the unknown.

  • Below, the full announcement from last Friday at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.